William Cullen Bryant

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William Cullen Bryant was to American poetry what Washington Irving was to American fiction. William Cullen Bryant, a renowned poet and journalist, was one of the most celebrated figures of nineteenth-century America. His popularity was comparable to that of Longfellow and Emerson, with his work attaining the highest ranking. Though none of his poems or editorials have survived to the present day, he is regarded as one of the literary goliaths of a bygone era. Apart from his work as a romantic poet and five decades as editor in chief of the New York Evening Post, he was an outspoken activist. He fought for the rights of workers and labor. Additionally, he advocated for the rights of religious minorities and immigrants. He was a leading authority on homeopathy and served as a hymn writer for the Unitarian Church.

Childhood & Adolescence

William Cullen Bryant was the second son born in Cummington, Massachusetts, to Peter Bryant and Sarah Snell. His father was a physician and a state legislator.
He developed an early passion for poetry, which he nurtured under his father’s tutelage. In 1808, he published his first poem, ‘The Embargo,’ which detailed a vicious attack on President Thomas Jefferson.

The publication received favorable reviews from both critics and the general public and quickly sold out. The public was astounded at how young Bryant began writing.

He began his education at Williams College and later pursued a career in law in Worthington and Bridgewater. He was admitted to the bar in 1815. After completing his studies, he rekindled his passion for poetry.

Career of William Cullen Bryant

He accepted a position as an attorney in Plainfield, a town located seven miles from Cummington. He would walk to and from his office. He noticed a single bird flying over the horizon during one of his walks. The sight moved him to tears and inspired him to write the poem ‘To a Waterfowl.’

The precise year he began writing his most famous work, ‘Thanatopsis,’ is highly speculative. The majority of people believe he began writing the poem around 1813.

In 1817, during the composition of ‘Thanatopsis,’ his father submitted several pages of verse to the North American Review, along with his own work. The editors were so taken with the poem that it was published in its entirety under the Greek title ‘Thanatopsis’ or ‘Meditation on Death’. Additionally, the poem was incorrectly attributed to his father.

The success of ‘Thanatopsis’ prompted him to publish several of his other works, including the 1821 poem ‘To a Waterfowl.’

He did not completely abandon his legal career, as the income generated by his literary works was insufficient to support him. As such, he continued to practice law in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, until 1825. He supplemented his income by working as a hog reeve in the town.

He left the legal profession due to an increasing love for poetry and an aversion to the pettifoggery and absurd judgment practiced in law.

Turning to a literary career, he landed the position of editor for the periodical, New York Review, in 1825. He later served on the editorial boards of the United States Review and Literary Gazette.

Despite repeated attempts to resurrect the periodical’s drowning status, he failed and thus accepted the position of Assistant Editor at the Alexander Hamilton-founded New York Evening Post. He served under William Coleman there.

He was promoted to the position of Editor in Chief and a co-owner of the New York Evening Post in about two years, in 1828, a position he held until 1878. Not only did the paper provide him with financial stability, but it also served as a domain for him to exercise his political authority in the city, state, and nation.

Along with his work as a poet and journalist, he developed a reputation as an activist and supporter of organized labor. He spoke up for workers’ rights and defended their privileges and liberties. Additionally, he defended the rights of religious minorities and immigrants and spoke out against bankers’ corrupt practices.

He was invited to address the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard University’s August commencement. For the same purpose, he spent months creating a verse-based panorama of civilization’s history titled ‘The Ages’.

‘The Ages’ resulted in the 1832 publication of a collection of poems titled ‘Poems.’ His career as a poet began with the publication of ‘Poems’ in the United States and Great Britain. He also established himself as America’s foremost poet.

Later in life, he edited the popular work ‘Picturesque America,’ which appeared between 1872 and 1874. It described the picturesque and scenic beauty of the United States and Canada in a two-volume set.

At the end of his career, he devoted himself to translating Homer’s works rather than writing his own poetry. Between 1871 and 1874, he worked on The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Personal History and Legacies

In 1821, he married Frances Fairchild.

He died in 1878. He died as a result of complications from an accidental fall during a Central Park ceremony honoring Italian patriot Giuseppe Mazzini. He was laid to rest in Roslyn, Long Island, New York, at the Roslyn Cemetery.

Numerous parks, squares, schools, and colleges have been named in his honor posthumously.

Estimated Net Worth

The estimated net worth of William Cullen Bryant is unknown.

Trivia

This renowned American romantic poet of the nineteenth century, best known for the poem ‘Thanatopsis,’ spent five decades as the editor of the New York Evening Post.